I always feel a twinge of pity when someone tells me, “I don’t read for pleasure any more” or “I only read non-fiction.” Most of the pity is sympathy for the fact that, in today’s busy world, we just don’t have the time. Whenever someone expresses awe at the number of books I read in a year and asks me how I do it, I say, truthfully, that I make the time to read, just as I make the time to write these reviews. So I realize that the act of reading is itself a commitment, an investment of time and energy, and it’s a shame we don’t have more opportunities for it.
The rest of the pity goes towards the smaller worlds in which people who don’t read fiction must live. Non-fiction is great. I love a good biography, history, or science text. But let’s be honest here: I would never, ever pick up a non-fiction book about the history of South America. It’s just not a topic that it would occur to me to read about, let alone something I’m interested in reading about as non-fiction. Even if someone gave me such a book as a gift, I’d probably struggle through it. I’d likely find it dry, confusing, difficult to relate to. The sad truth is that I learned absolutely nothing about South American history in school. While we focused on the founding of Canada and the various World Wars, South America itself was a big question mark on the map, dangling off the end of Mexico.
Hand me a novel set in nineteenth-century South America, though, and then we’re on more solid ground. Therein lies the power of fiction: it can be a tool of education as well as entertainment. It can create empathy for characters whose lives are incredibly different from our own. And it also exposes us to facts and ideas that we would never be interested in reading as non-fiction items. I don’t want to read a biography of Símon Bolivar. I did read a fictional account of his last days as he journeyed into exile.
So with The General in His Labyrinth, Gabriel García Márquez contributes to the closing of another massive gap in my knowledge of world history. Through this sliver of story I have glimpsed the genesis of the countries of South America and the remarkable role Bolivar played in their founding. I’ve also enjoyed a slow and meditative look at the mind and last days of a man of many deeds and many contradictions.
García Márquez refers to Bolivar throughout as only “the General". He could just as easily have chosen “President” or “Liberator", so in choosing the first mode of address, he emphasizes Bolivar’s military past. This is a man who is not a politician so much as a warrior and a strategist. His vision is that of the conqueror and the liberator; peace, for Bolivar, was not ever really on the table. This theme reverberates through the novel, which does not follow a straightforward chronological path; in both the past and the present, chaos seems to stalk the General at every turn.
His past is a patchwork of unrest and rebellion. Even after wresting control of South America from its absentee Spanish overlords, the General finds that pacifying his own people is itself a task of a lifetime. His dream of a unified South America recedes ever into the distance, and though every government affords him the highest honours, he is regularly the subject of assassination attempts. This mirrors the present, which has an illusion of restfulness and closure, at least within the General’s inner circle. Without, García Márquez depicts almost comical efforts to keep the General within a cocoon of misinformation: guards and servants conspire to keep him ignorant of the social unrest and protests that dog him from the start of the journey to its end. At every town, those in charge meet the General with open arms.
Of course, what makes this journey so special is the finality of it: the General is dying. Tuberculosis has ravaged his body to the point where many doubt he will survive to see Europe and exile. This spectre of mortality looms over every event of the book, as García Márquez constantly reminds us through his regular descriptions of the various ways the General’s body betrays him. For a man who stood against Spain and ruled multiple countries, the end is just as ordinary as a peasant on the streets. The General’s body slowly deteriorates, and with it so too does his sense of agency. He clings, almost desperately, to the privilege of shaving himself in the morning, despite failing eyesight and a shaking hand.
With the end of the General, so too there is the sense of an ending to the situation in South America. As long as the General travels down the river, it feels like all of South America is paused. Things are happening, yes, but they are distant and indistinct events related back by hearsay and rumour. Nevertheless, this constant murmur creates a tension that will only dissolve upon the General’s death: only then can everything rush into motion, old alliances discarded and new ones brokered along lines that have been visible for months.
García Márquez’s style is relaxing. Much like Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowland, his reliance on artful descriptions over dialogue draws the reader into the ebb and flow of the narrative. It’s very easy to curl up with this book next to a fire and with a cup of tea and lose oneself in the General’s final journey into the annals of history. This isn’t a story in the traditional sense where things happen, one after the other, where a protagonist and antagonist do battle to resolve a conflict. Instead, it is an account, a detailed look at the last days of someone who made such a big impact on the world. García Márquez spends little time attempting to rationalize the General’s actions or intent or even trying to get inside the General’s head. As the General’s manservant, Jose Palacios, would say: “only my master knows what my master is thinking.”
And so, this is a restful book. It’s a book that invites contemplation and consideration, though it requires neither. It’s a book that offers few answers, preferring instead to offer up images and ideas, leaving you to come up with the questions yourself. It educates, but indirectly, and as discreetly as possible. It’s the perfect blend of history and literature.